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What is Going On With the Timberwolves?

Kevin Sullivan/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire

Minnesota entered the season with low expectations, with many projecting that they would again be in contention for the first overall pick next June. After last night’s crazy win in Atlanta, though, the Minnesota Timberwolves find themselves at a surprising 4-2, with back-to-back wins on the road against Eastern Conference contenders. While the team may well come back to earth and wind up with a large number of ping-pong balls at the end of the season, the Wolves have proven to be a tougher out on a night-to-night basis and further along in their development process than many had expected. That raises the question,  “What is going on with the Timberwolves?”

Karl-Anthony Towns: Rookie of the Year Favorite

I wrote in this space before the season that Timberwolves fan should temper their expectations for Karl-Anthony Towns during his rookie season. And then the games started and, well, that rationale went out the window. Simply put, Towns has been incredible in his first games as a pro. He has a polished offensive game, showing the ability to step out on pick-and-pops as well as the footwork and athleticism necessary to get clean looks underneath.

His passing has lived up to preseason hype, as he has found teammates for open looks with passes that few big men in the league would attempt. And where he has been most impressive is on defense. Towns is altering shots at the rim at a rate impressive for any player, much less a rookie in his first handful of games, particularly in late-game situations where he has already made crucial stops to seal or preserve victories. As expected, his biggest adjustment has been with the officials, as early foul trouble has limited his minutes in several games, but his production on the court must have officials readying his nameplate for the Rookie of the Year trophy.

Andrew Wiggins Putting It Together

As profiled by Steve Lee over the weekend, Andrew Wiggins struggled to start the season. That may have resulted from lingering back issues, getting acclimated to new teammates and coaches, a small-game sample, or some combination thereof. Whatever the reason, however, with 64 points on 49 shots in his last two games, Wiggins has begun to assert himself and take the leap many expected of last year’s Rookie of the Year.

Wiggins is hitting his outside shots after starting the year 1-10 on threes and shooting just 29% overall through the first four games. His shots were certain to start falling at a higher clip, but much of Wiggins’ recent success has resulted from an emphasis on the ways in which Wiggins is involved in the offense. Coaches talked this preseason of Wiggins’ physical advantages while playing shooting guard, and while those were present early, particularly in matchups against Gary Harris and C.J. McCollum, Wiggins was unable to fully use that advantage because of his inability to break defenders down on the perimeter.

In the last few games, however, Wiggins has been receiving the ball in different, more efficient ways that highlight his strengths. Limited are the number of mid-post and wing isolations that accounted for such a high percentage of Wiggins possessions at the end of last year and to start this season. In their place are actions that get Wiggins the ball while he’s moving toward the hoop, hiding his still-weak ball handling and letting him use his great athleticism to score through and over players at the rim or on one-dribble pull-ups.

Encouragingly, Wiggins took over the end of last night’s game against the Hawks, as he finished the game on a 7-0 personal run that took the Timberwolves from a 107-106 deficit with over 3 minutes to go to an 113-107 advantage that effectively put the game on ice.

March 2, 2015 - Minneapolis, MN, USA - Minnesota Timberwolves' Ricky Rubio (9) is defended by Los Angeles Clippers' Chris Paul (3) during the first quarter on Monday, March 2, 2015, at the Target Center in Minneapolis

March 2, 2015 – Minneapolis, MN, USA – Minnesota Timberwolves’ Ricky Rubio (9) is defended by Los Angeles Clippers’ Chris Paul (3) during the first quarter on Monday, March 2, 2015, at the Target Center in Minneapolis

Ricky Rubio is a Maestro

Ricky Rubio’s shooting woes have long overshadowed his impact on the court. Rubio’s sniping was sure to regress after his incredible first game, but he has been active in looking for his shot while continuing to be an elite playmaker on offense and a disruptive force on the perimeter, as he is currently second in the league in assists and fourth in the league in steals per game. There is a lot of noise in on-off numbers, particularly six games into the season, but the contrast between the Timberwolves’ performance with and without Rubio is striking. Wiggins and Towns are clearly the team’s future (though Ricky still just turned 25), and Garnett  Prince and Miller are the veteran leaders of the team, but Ricky Rubio is the team’s most important player.

What is Going On with the Rotations?

The Timberwolves blogosphere was aghast about the Timberwolves confounding rotations, during the first stretch of games, particularly on the wing. Much of the frustration came from a questionable reliance on big minutes from aging veterans and a perplexing commitment to Zach LaVine as the team’s backup point guard.

Minnesota signed Tayshaun Prince this offseason to mentor the younger players and to provide defensive stability on the wing. While he has thus far upheld his end of the bargain on defense, he is a complete non-threat on offense. (The same can, unfortunately, be said of Kevin Garnett). Prince did hit two big, late-game shots at the end of the Chicago game, but if Prince’s offensive game continues to be an issue, he may start to get the Tony Allen treatment, putting further pressure on Rubio, Wiggins, and Towns with the starting unit. While Garnett remains the team’s vocal leader, Nemanja Bjelica has gained the trust of the coaching staff and has closed games as the team’s power forward.

Shabazz Muhammad has been largely disappointing thus far, not showing the same sustained aggressiveness that brought his game to life last season. Muhammad has shown flashes, including minutes against Portland and Miami where he was active in transition and on the offensive glass, but he has disappeared for large stretches in his other minutes. Some of that may be due to the teammates with whom he often shares the court.

Through the first four games, Muhammad played the vast majority of his minutes with Zach LaVine and the second unit, fleshed out by Kevin Martin,  Bjelica and Gorgui Dieng.  That features five players who like to work with the ball in their hands, and, aside from possibly Gorgui Dieng, does not have even one average defender for his position. Dieng, for his part, has shown an improved offensive game, having added several post moves over the summer, but his defensive value still lags behind his defensive reputation.

The LaVine-Martin-Muhammad wing trio is a disaster defensively, and despite his incredible athleticism, LaVine has shown little improvement in running an NBA offense, too often doing things that lead to open teammates throwing out their arms in visible frustration. Meanwhile, the team spent much of the offseason touting the stability that Andre Miller would provide the backup point guard spot and the long-term potential of first round pick Tyus Jones. Miller has played a total of 9 minutes and Jones has yet to see the court.

In recent games, Mitchell has largely gone away from the hockey-style line shifts in favor of staggering the starters’ minutes with the second unit. He has even played Rubio and  Zach LaVine together (!!), allowing LaVine to (finally) play his natural position at the 2 instead of pigeonholing him into a backup point guard role for which he is ill-suited.

Wiggins has also spent time with the second unit, giving the team defense on the wing where it had none before. Martin’s absence from the team for personal matters in the game against the Bulls helped force this shift onto Mitchell and the coaches, and it will be interesting to see if these changes become permanent or if they were just a one-game aberration. To Mitchell’s credit, the team’s game against the Hawks featured staggered minutes with the team’s full roster.

Free Throws! Free Throws! Free Throws!

I have long lamented the team’s lack of three-point shooting, but given the team’s shooting to start the year, it’s hard to blame the team for not bombing away from deep.

That isn’t to say that I condone the Wolves YET AGAIN! leading the league in long twos. Keeping the team’s offense afloat is a league-leading free throw rate, led by Martin, Wiggins, and Rubio. Those three are drawing a crazy amount of fouls. Kevin Martin is thus far what James Harden’s detractors claim him to be: someone constantly initiating contact and coercing defenders into reaching and grabbing, and at the last instant, throwing his arms in the air to draw a shooting foul.  His shot selection without the bail-out whistles would be atrocious. This is nothing new for Martin, of course, who has made a career out of drawing fouls, but the aesthetic effect get magnified when Rubio is doing the same thing, leading to an endless march to the free throw line. Pretty or not, though, it has been effective, with the team sporting an almost-average offense despite the horrible shots its scheme generates.

 

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